Story of Evolution/Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College
January 25, 2007

"A Map of Disappointments"

"The literary canon is the legacy of honourable failures." (Zadie Smith, "Failing Better," 2006)

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." (Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, 1983)

From The Samuel Beckett Sketchbook, by Tom Phillips
"the most sensitive ears for language alive."

How does "failing better" (in literature) resemble/differ from "getting it less wrong" (in science)?

How do the practices of writing and interpreting literature resemble/differ from the practice of science?

How well does Paul's story of science as open-ended transactional cyclic observations/interpretation/creation; being wrong and conflict an important part of it; give up ideology/"definiteness", replace with commitment to "summary of observations", "getting it less wrong", continuing meaningful story creation/sharing/revision/evolution work as a description of the work of writing/ reading/ interpreting/ criticizing literature?

Of special interest is the role of "the crack" (cultural background, personal temperament, individual creativity) as a "feature" of, rather than a "bug," in the process.

Cf. Zadie Smith: "there is a rogue element somewhere...the self...unsuited for the regulatory atmosphere of reviews or the objective interrogation of seminars."

Portrait of T. S. Eliot, by Wyndham Lewis

"Writing is not a science.... T.S. Eliot was honest about wanting both writing and criticism to approach the condition of a science...with the writer as catalyst, entering into a tradition, performing an act of meaningful recombination, and yet leaving no trace of himself....For writers, however, Eliot's analogy just won't do .... fictional truth is ... the watermark of self (Zadie Smith, "Fail Better," The Guardian, January 13, 2007).

"scientific statements are ... provisional stories, reflecting human perspectives ... differences among people are an asset to the process" (Paul Grobstein, Science as Story).

On Beauty

No, we could not itemize the list
of sins they can't forgive us.
The beautiful don't lack the wound.
It is always beginning to snow.

Of sins they can't forgive us
speech is beautifully useless.
It is always beginning to snow.
The beautiful know this.

Speech is beautifully useless.
They are the damned.
The beautiful know this.
They stand around unnatural as statuary.

They are the damned.
and so their sadness is perfect,
delicate as an egg placed in your palm.
Hard, it is decorated with their face

and so their sadness is perfect.
The beautiful don't lack the wound.
Hard, it is decorated with their face.
No, we could not itemize the list.


What do you hear?

What effect did the reading have on you?
What does the poem do?
What does it mean?
How does it achieve that meaning?
How do you feel, as these questions are being asked of you??

Fear of
...all that space?
...all that you don't know/need to know, in order to respond?
...all you don't know about the relevant context?

"Meaning is context-bound....context is boundless;
there is no determining in advance what might count as relevant"

(Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory).

My own moment occurred during the first semester of my freshman college writing course. We were reading a Hemingway short story; the professor criticized the staccato dialogue between husband and wife. When I defended it, as appropriate to this exchange, Professor Fehrenbach responded, "All of Hemingway's characters talk that way." And the world opened up for me, into a maze of texts. I realized that, to speak with authority about this one story, I needed to read them all. And so I become an English major, and begin to read, sort of conversationally, sort of systematically, as each text led me into the others that inform it.

(Dalke, Teaching to Learn/Learning to Teach:
Meditations on the Classroom

Reader Response Theory:

Stranger in a Strange Land: Grokking in the Americas
My sabbatical in Latin America/learning Spanish:

The difficulties of reading culture.

"As a form of public discourse, the fountain certainly conveys a message of high expectations!"

The difficulties of speaking/hearing/interpreting a new language,
differences in degree, not in kind:
there is always a gap of indeterminacy
in the transaction that is language
--the gap we saw in our interpretation of "On Beauty"
--a gap that's wonderfully demonstrated in the act of punning.

From a talk in the Emergence Group on Speech Recognition:
"a machine learns to wreck a nice beach"

Your offerings?

What do you get when you drop a piano down a mine shaft?
What do you get when you drop a piano onto a military base?

Why couldn't the pony talk?

What's going on here?
Why-and-how do those puns work?
What is the logic of their working?

...linguistic presumptions: puns demonstrate the inherent instability of the meanings of words, and so challenge the conventional understanding of language as a structure of relationships in which each word is identified by its difference from others. The distinction between words isn't at all that clear; the "category" that each occupies is very porous.

(In other words, they make linguists very nervous!)

"Linguists, arise! We have nothing but our *!"

See, for example, Catherine Bates. "The Point of Puns." Modern Philology 96, 14 (May 1999). 421f on pun's perfidious status as an aberrant element within the linguistic structure....Puns play with meaning....they give the wrong names to the wrong things--and they disturb the proper flow of confusing sense and sound...normal rules governing etymology and lexicography are temporarily suspended while speculation and fancy roam free.... puns...subvert the one-to-one relation between signifier and signified...fracture the sign....the word can mean two or more things. It is because it ambiguates meaning that the pun disturbs the system of communication by which meaning is conveyed....the interpretative process...ultimately restores priority to the serious business of making sense, to showing what a pun finally means....a freak coincidence...becomes a causal and motivated presented as lexically appropriate...Once limited to a certain point, the pun becomes masterable and pleasurable.

Jonathan Culler, in On Puns: The Foundation of Letters (1987, pp. 1-16), suggests that punning frequently seems...a structural, connecting offer the mind a sense and an experience of an order that it does not master or comprehend....we are urged to conceive an order.....Insofar as this is the goal or achievement of art, the pun seems an exemplary agent....

The act of punning is the exemplary act of language-play, and of literature-making.

Culler asks us to"....note above all the complexity and diversity of literature...the possibility of fictionally exceeding what has previously been thought and written....Literature is a paradoxical institution because to create literature is to write according to existing formulas....but it is also to flout those conventions, to go beyond institution that lives by exposing and criticizing its own limits.... 'cultural capital'...But literature cannot be reduced to this conservative social function...literature is the noise of culture as well as its information. It is an entropic force." (Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, 1997; pp. 40-41).

For literature to "work" this way, though, requires some hard work on the part of its readers:

".... a novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal ... Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe...that fiction is the thing you relate to ... seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced ... we have to ask of each other a little bit more" (Zadie Smith, "Fail Better").

So...what about that poem we started with?
Nick Laird, To a Fault
Poetic Form: Pantoum 15th c. folk Malaysian poem formed with two rhyming couplets
modern European version: any number of four-line stanzas
the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next
last line of a pantoum is often the same as the first

subtle shifts in meaning with a new context
an incantation/echo/slowdown created by interlocking pattern of rhyme and repetition
"the reader takes four steps forward, then two back"
a "perfect form for the evocation of a past time"...

but...the cracks? the indeterminacy? the snow??
Thinking about the present/future: Daily Lit: Too busy for books? Read them by e-mail.
Howard's End on Daily Lit
Source Document for this talk: Why Words Arise--and Wherefore:
Literature and Literary Theory as Forms of Exploration

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